Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

In The Red

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 23, 2011

If someone or a company is “in the red” it means that amount of money being paid out is greater than the amount of money coming in.  As with the term “in the black” this phrase comes from accounting practices where positive numbers were written in black ink and negative numbers were written in red ink.

Even though several websites are quick to state that the earliest citation of “in the red” can be found in the “Wise-Crack Dictionary” written and published by George H. Maines and Bruce Grant in 1926, Idiomation has good reason to believe the expression was in use prior to 1926 as shown by the ease with which the term “in the black” was used in a Wall Street Journal news story in 1923.

Catholic Culture magazine ran a story in May 2001 about the situation with the diocese in New York City.  Early in the report, readers were informed that:

When then-Archbishop Egan (he was made a cardinal in February) was appointed to succeed John Cardinal O’Connor, who died in May 2000, his first priority was to save the archdiocese from potential financial breakdown. New York had been operating for a decade with a $20 million budget deficit, and that didn’t include individual parishes and schools that were also operating in the red. Cardinal Egan did not announce the details of his plan at the time, but rumors ran rampant through the chancery about what might be cut back.

On January 18, 1960 the Gettysburg Times ran an Associated Press Special Service story out of Washington, D.C. about the St. Lawrence Seaway that had opened the previous April and that was expected to operate at a loss of $2,359,000 for the year starting July 1, 1960.  The headline read:

New Seaway Operating “In The Red

On October 5, 1933 the New York Times carried a news story entitled, “Montgomery Ward Turn $1,000,000 Net Profit In August After Setbacks Since First Year.”  The story reported:

After operating “in the red” for the first half of this year, Montgomery Ward & Co. had a net profit of approximately $1,000000 in August, the management announced today.

On August 30, 1930, just as the Great Depression took hold, the Wall Street Journal published a news story entitled, “Losses In Sugar Spur Agreement” reported:

European beet producers, high tariffs and bounties notwithstanding, have been operating in the red for many years, and the position of the industry is precarious. At first the producers of each country will be approached independent of government influence.

That Idiomation could not find an earlier published version of the expression than the “Wise-Crack Dictionary” of 1926, it is reasonable to believe that the term was in vogue at least as early as 1923 when its partner term “in the black” was being used with the expectation of being understood in Wall Street Journal story quotes.

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